Mystery

The DM's friend.

One of the most fundamental aspects of gaming is the mystery of the game -- wondering who wrote a particular legend and what it means, what strange cities lie beyond those mountains, who built this ancient temple, or what horrible creatures lurk behind that castle door. When a group of players has been adventuring in the same campaign world for years, they can lose that sense of wonder we all felt when we first played the game. Everyone gets used to the adventure area, what creatures they face, and generally what to expect from the campaign world, whether through playing or reading the game books. With some work, a good DM can have the players fascinated again and remembering their adventures with a sense of nostalgia. Some ways to enhance the mystery of a game follow:

  1. Make Travel Difficult: A world is mysterious if the players have to go to another land to learn about it. If they can meet far-traveling merchants in their hometown and find out all about distant lands, they never have to go anywhere! Natural barriers, such as mountain ranges, turbulent seas, deserts, glaciers, and vast wastelands, tend to restrict trade and travel. Naturally, the characters will be intrigued by a difficult journey to these distant, almost unknown places. Imagine their excitement when they discover places spoken of only in legend. The possibilities for character development are numerous, when the players realize their PC's are so far from home, perhaps never to return.
  2. Make Other Lands Different, Even Bizarre: Anything could be different in a distant place. Changes in climate can make the environment obviously different. If the players are used to forest, give them swamp. If they like mountains, give them a rolling seacoast. With climate come changes in normal weather, local plants and animals, and travel problems. The local races and cultures make regions unique. They can be friendly or belligerent, well-governed or chaotic, peaceful or at war with their neighbors, living in fear or freedom, or any combination. The details make a great deal of difference. The population's industry may be dictated by the surroundings and resources, as will the local building materials, food and drink, transportation, and prosperity. The people may worship different gods, or none at all. Individual beliefs, daily activity, technology, art, entertainment, currency, and traditions may all be alien to the visiting characters. Use details to point out the fact that the PC's are strangers in a strange land. Make their entire experience one of wonder and discovery (and sometimes, disgust). Players will be wondering how different those other legendary lands are.
  3. Use Tales, Legends, Rumors: How else can you get players wondering about those distant places, so they will want to go there someday? Using tales can be difficult for GM's who lack experience in role-playing NPC's. I find it very difficult. If you wish to do so, go at it full tilt. If you throw in one or two tales during an adventure, the players will know it pertains to the adventure or the next one. Flood them! Every barkeep, barmaid, shop owner, and cutpurse has some rumors to relate. Most travelers, adventurers, heralds, and guardsmen would enjoy exchanging news of places they have been. Sages and bards are full of stories, legends, myths, rumors, and tales to relate. Dragons and other intelligent creatures are storehouses of information. Priests are full of prophecies, and wizards are stuffed with arcane knowledge. And the occasional wandering madman can be of great help (or hindrance) to a party. Rumors and tales can be anything--some true, some outrageously unbelievable, and some that are both. Political scandals, tales of lost treasure, and rumors of strange happenings make for hours of listening. Old, out of date rumors can make the rounds every so often. Tales of heroic feats and legends of powerful adventurers inspire young people to take up swords and spellbooks and seek their own destinies. Rumors of trouble can precede invasions. There are so many possibilities, use your imagination. Be sure not to give away the whole story through tales. They are a tool for starting adventures and providing clues, not solving the players' problems.
  4. Use The Past As A Way To Limit Information: Ancient ruins and lost cities are the meat and potatoes of adventuring. The past has an undeniable allure to most of us. Make it fascinating with crumbling old castles and towers, ancient dungeons and ruins to explore, archaic artifacts to seek, eons old riddles to solve, and great mysteries shrouded in the mists of the past. The players should have only pieces of information to start with (old legends, stories, or books), work their way through the adventure, gathering clues and insights to the past, and finish by putting all the pieces together. The answer or solution should be something unexpected and intriguing. This makes for distinctive, memorable adventures, and the PC's can be the subjects of their own legends and tales (some that no one will believe!).
Using these ideas can help a DM create that sense of mystery in the players--that fascination I have wished for since my early days of playing. Seeing the players feel it because of your GM'ing is satisfying as well.